10+ Tips for Surviving Life as an Expat Wife

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Let’s face it, moving abroad is scary, especially when you’re about to become a trailing spouse. Especially scary for those of us trailing spouses who have quit our jobs to follow our partners around the world. Between the culture shock, the lack of any sort of regular schedule, the language barriers, and the just general lack of any sort of a clue as to what’s going on, it’s bound to be a rough transition. Lucky for you, you’re not in uncharted territory. Tons of people, myself included, have gone through this very transition and came out on the other side smiling. I’ve talked with a few other amazing expat wives, and we’ve put together this list of all the best advice we have to give to you, the new or soon to be, expat wife.

P.S. We do not intend to discriminate against expat husbands, rare gems that you are. This advice applies to you too. I just happened to come up with a rhyming title and couldn’t give it up. “Expat Spouse” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. I hope you understand.

1. Take & create opportunities to meet new people.

When you first move to your new country you’ll most likely know no one outside of your spouse/kids. Unfortunately, they will not be much help when it comes to the practical side of adjusting to life in another country. How will you find the nearest grocery store, pharmacy, or buy x item? Your family will be just as clueless as you. The answer, get out a meet other expats.

Join Facebook groups, group messages, and go to meetups, anything to let people know you’re here and need a friend. Because you will need a friend. Everyone needs some guidance, and who better to guide your confused self than an expert foreigner who’s been around the block and then some.

Besides the practicality of it all, we all need people in our corner. Friends to hang out with and ride out this crazy life we lead. You never know what amazing person is just around the corner waiting to meet you and become your new best friend. Sounds cheesy but it really does work like that as an expat. We all tend to live in the same area so you literally never know around which corner you’ll find a friend!

Put yourself out there, get involved with the local expat community and you’ll start to feel right at home.

2. Get good at being alone.

This is the antithesis to the tip number one, but equally as important, especially for those of us who are used to having full-time jobs. The fact is you will be alone, a lot. Your spouse will probably work more hours than he/she used to in your home country, and you’ll spend a good amount of time alone in your apartment, or going grocery shopping, hanging out a coffee shop, or wherever and however you choose to spend your time, but one thing’s for sure, you’ll have a lot more downtime than ever before.

Embrace it.

It will be weird at first, and you might even hate it, but when you think about it, learning to enjoy your own company is actually a really good skill to have.

doumen-hike
On a hike with a new friend outside the city.

3. Do new things you’ve been wanting to try.

You gotta do something to fill up all that newfound downtime right? Why not learn new skills? You know all those things you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t had the time to actually, ya know, do them? That time is now!

Knit that scarf you’ve been wanting to make, join a gym and get in shape, write a book, heck, learn a new language, whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do, you’ll never have more time on your hands to do it than you do now.

Keeping busy and giving yourself projects to work on is one of the best things you can do as an expat wife to keep your sense of purpose and fulfillment. We truly do have to find our own footing on this new ground, separate from that of our spouses and their work filled days.

4. Find a way to continue your passions.

Have something you love doing? Don’t stop just because you’ve moved to another country. Do some digging and find out how you can keep your passions alive in your new world.

How to do this?

Expat Facebook pages are a great place to start as they give you the ability to ask a wide variety of people. Post on your local expat Facebook page or group and ask around for info about continuing the things you love. Chances are someone living there is into the same things you are and can help you get your groove back.

Be persistent, we’ve found word of mouth is everything in our expat community, and it could just take meeting the right person who’s got the connections.

If not, no worries, I’ve been there. I’m not gonna sugar coat it, the truth is, if you can’t continue doing what you love in your new country it will suck, big time. And you’re allowed to be sad, but once you’re done, remember to jump up to point number 3 above and start trying out new things. Nothing will replace doing the thing you love, but we can sure as hell try!

zhuahi-sunset
I’ve always loved hiking, now I can do more of it, and catch views like this while Justin is away or at work.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

I’m gonna get very real with you here for a second, when you first land in your new country you will feel like a bubbling idiot. Seriously, you won’t know the first thing about anything, including sometimes even how to cross the dang street. It’s frustrating, but it will pass, I promise. Think of it as a sort of hazing. We’ve all been through the humiliation, but we’ve come out on the other side stronger for it.

How do you crawl your way out? Ask questions. A lot of questions. And learn, as much as possible from the answers to those questions.

The best people to ask these questions to are your fellow expats, anyone who’s been around the block for about a year or more is who you want to get advice from. If they’ve survived a year and are still sticking around, they’ve probably got their shit pretty well figured out. The long term expats though, those are your Yodas. They hold the secrets to the expat universe. And they might unlock them for you, if only you ask.

But expats aren’t the only ones good for the asking, locals can also make excellent sounding boards (provided they speak your language that is) and can be the source of some vital cultural info. As long as you’re respectful with your probing, most locals will be happy to help you understand their native land.

6. Make your home your sanctuary.

As an expat, your home is precious. It is the only space (at least at first) in your new country where you will feel comfortable, relaxed, and well, at home. So treat it like the precious gem that it is. Bring your favorite things from home (as in your home country home) and adorn your house with them. Whether that’s furniture, pictures, artwork, clothes, whatever, just make sure that the things that make your house feel like home, come along for the ride.

It might take a bit for your stuff to travel the ocean, or the sky and navigate through the maze that is customs in any country, but the wait will be worth it, we promise. We waited a total of 6 months before all of our stuff arrived from the US to China. The waiting sucked, big time, but man was it worth it to finally be able to hang all those pictures on the wall, and have our tandem bike to ride around on. Some things are just irreplaceable, and while, of course, we could have lived without those things it would’ve made what was already a rough transition even harder.

Having even just a few small things you can shove in your suitcase really will make a huge difference mentally in easing the transition.

Besides bringing some things from home, try not to skimp too much when it comes to your new house. As an expat wife, you’ll probably be spending a lot more time in your apartment than you did back home, so make it a place where you genuinely want to hang out. Buy a comfortable couch and bed, get those kitchen appliances you need to make your favorite dish, create your own mini garden on your balcony, etc. your home is not the area you want to be skimping on. The last thing you want to have happen is to feel like you need an escape from your own house!

balcony-sunrise
Watching the sunrise from our balcony in Zhuhai, China.

7. Study the culture.

This is something that I personally think is super important, even more so than learning the language. See, culture and language are very much intertwined, but just learning a language doesn’t give you the tools you need to navigate a new country.  I would argue, however, that just studying the culture fills your toolbox with all the essential tools to start building a life in your new country.

And now, a case study.

Back in 2016 Justin and I did a 2-week long bike tour on our tandem bike where we rode approximately 1300 kilometers from Lijiang, in Yunnan Province to Chengdu in Sichuan Province, China. Justin had some friends that lived in Chengdu, so for our last 2 nights of the trip, we stayed in one of their apartments. It was super nice of them to let us stay, considering they already had another cyclist couple staying in their only guest room, so one of the roommates gave us his room while he slept on the couch. Awesome guys.

Anyway, this other cyclist couple is on a round the world trip on their bikes, and, at the time, was riding through China. I was shocked to learn that neither one of them spoke a word of Chinese, I mean nothing. They rode through some of the most rural parts of China where absolutely no one speaks English or any other language besides Chinese that is, and never had any issues. They got themselves hotel rooms, ordered food at restaurants, everything, with no spoken communication, and guess what, they told us how much they’ve loved traveling through China, even though they can’t verbally communicate with anyone. Crazy!

So, of course, I asked them how they did it.

The answer? They understood the Chinese culture. They knew things like people seat themselves at restaurants, and if you want the waiter’s attention, raise your hand, or that if you’re shopping at a market you need to barter for a price. They also got really good at portraying meaning through body language to do things such as ask for a place to sleep for the night, or to fill up a water bottle, for example. In fact, research shows that a surprising 55% of communication is done through body language, and they’ve made use of every single one of those 55 percents.

I have to admit, I was quite shocked when we went out to dinner together and they really didn’t need my help communicating with the waitresses. They would point to things on the menu and use their fingers to indicate how many of the dishes. If they wanted more rice then they would raise their hands and show their empty rice bowl to the waitress. A minute later out came a brand new steaming mound of rice. It was incredible, almost like watching a silent movie!

What does studying the culture do for you? It tells you how to get things done and what to expect in certain situations. It also allows the Chinese to be at ease when interacting with you, which is so incredibly important considering how uncomfortable a lot of Chinese people are interacting with foreigners. In the words of Matthew B. Christensen, author of the book Decoding China,

“Every communicative situation (i.e. buying a train ticket, ordering a meal, etc.) has a set of expectations that if followed will ensure a successful experience. These expectations can be viewed as a cultural code. If you know the code, you will know what to expect, and be able to get things done smoothly.”

So study the culture, know the code, and you’ll be rocking this expat thing in no time.

8. Learn the language.

Just because you study the culture doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn the language. I mean behavior and miming can get things done, but it wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to, ya know, talk to people?

This might seem like a daunting task for some people but even if you can just get the basics: hello, thank you, how much, I want this, etc. your life will be so much easier and better because I don’t know about you but I’ve never had any desire to become a mime.

If you happen to be moving to China like we did, check out our Tips for Learning Chinese post. Hope it helps. Oh and if you are trying to learn Chinese, good luck (jk, it’s really not as hard as people make it out to be).

chinese-test
Learning Chinese was the first new thing I set out to do upon moving to China.

9. Keep an open mind.

If there’s one thing that remains a fact no matter where in the world you are going to expat, it’s that things will be different. It doesn’t matter if you are an American going to live in Canada, things will be different.

Every country has their own way of doing things, no matter how similar the countries or cultures may seem. Even things that don’t seem like things, like buying groceries, or mailing a letter, will be done differently.

Because of this fact, it is so, so so so incredibly important that we all keep an open mind. This is something that I still have to remind myself of daily, especially when, like right now, I look out the window and see a car stopped in the middle of an intersection trying to figure out where to go. They just drive differently here in China.

Regardless of what some people, or society, might tell you, there is no right way to produce a certain result. For example, there is no one correct route to get say from your house to the grocery store. There is a fast route, a slow route, and a myriad of other paths you can take, but not any one of them can be defined as the correct path from your house to the store. Remember this when you see people doing something totally wacko, or you think, “why the f*** do I have to do x,y, and z just to buy a phone” (idk, pick some action and insert here).

It’s not right, it’s not wrong, it’s just different.

Most of the time 😉

10. Accept that change is your only constant.

What do I mean by that? As an expat, your life will change all the time, way more than it normally would back home. The biggest factor of this change is that people come and go, ALL THE TIME.

I compare expat life to (the slightly more adult version of) college. If you remember back to those good ole college days, you might recall that friends were constantly coming a going. Seniors graduated, a new freshman class moved in, people took internships or co-ops elsewhere, some of your friends probably transferred schools, but the result was always change. You were constantly making and losing friends.

The same thing will happen as an expat. New people come, contracts expire and people go home, friends’ husbands get transferred to a different location and the family moves, people take their kids home for the summer, etc. this stuff happens all the time. Your expat community, your friends, will come and go on a regular basis. The faster you accept this and become ok with it, the better adjusted to this crazy life you will be.

Now, I’m not saying losing a friend won’t hurt, it will, but in this day and age, no one who moves away is ever really gone. Plus, now you’ll have the opportunity to go visit them, wherever in the world they might be.

yak-tongue
Trying yak tongue in Chengdu, being adventurous!

11. Nurture your sense of adventure.

You’re living in a different country, maybe even on a different continent. Everything is new and different and so incredibly amazing! Embrace the amazingness, take in as much of it as you can. Get outside and explore your new city, then when you’re done with that explore your new country.

A great way to start exploring your new home is by wandering the streets. Hop on a bus or a bike and get off when you see something that looks interesting. Explore the area, if it’s a cool spot take pictures and make a note of the location so you can go back again.  Rinse and repeat. You’ll not only get a feel for the vibe of your new town and what it has to offer, but you’ll probably stumble upon cool places even long time expats didn’t know existed. Then you can share info with them for a change!

As an expat, you have the incredible opportunity to explore a different part of the world that you might otherwise have never gotten to see. Don’t waste the gift, use the gift! Discover the world.  Open your eyes, your mouth, your nose and, most importantly, your mind to new experiences.

Having the opportunity to be an expat and live in another country could very well be the thing that completely changes your life for the better.

And if not, well, it’ll make a dang good story.

Are you ready to crush it as an expat wife? Share your story in the comments.

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